Jean–Pierre Pabanel, in The Military Coups in sub-Saharan Africa, defines a military coup as “a conscious and deliberate act, by the army or a part of the army, to take hold of the state institutions and to rule the country. Unlike a military conflict and a revolution that both imply a great number of actors, a coup is plotted by fewer actors who decide to capture state power by force.
Yet, African public opinion expressed outrage and blamed the coup staged by presidential security regime (RSP), 17th September 2015, in Burkina Faso, in contrast with the sense of regret that came over the same opinion when the attempted coup against Pierre Nkurunziza regime failed in Burundi, this past May.
From this contrast, it seems that the Africans prefer a certain sort of coups to other else. This hypothesis raises the issue of the compability between coups and democracy in Africa.
Since the first coup instigated in Egypt by Nasser in 1952, more than 80 coups have occurred in the cradle of mankind. The last one was plotted by Burkina RSP headed by Gilbert Diendéré, the previous chief of staff of ex-president Blaise Comparé. Plenty of coups sadly marked out postcolonial Africa History. But it is not an exceptional case, as the Westerners and the Asians have gone through such experiences.
Do we always have toblame the military coups?
According the fundamental principle of democratic regime, the answer is cleary yes: elections are the legal way of designation of political leaders. Democracy always blames the use of force as a mean of seizure of power.
However, one can also argue that the outcome, positive or negative, of the coups should be appreciated only in the long run, instead of blaming it systematically. The examples of Gambia or Gambia show that some seizure of power by force turned out to ensure stability. All in all, there is a fundamental difference between plotting a coup in order to establish a democratic regime (have a look to the legacy of the putschist Jerry Rawlings in Ghana), and between a coup in order to set up an authoritarian regime (see the bad gouvernance of the putschist Yahya Jammeh in Gambia). Besides, now a day, the Malians must not have the same opinion about Amadou Toumani Touré coup in 1991 against Moussa Traoré regime and the Guineans about Dadis Camara coup, in 2008, the day following President Lasana Conté death. The former view must be more positive than the latter one.
Nevertheless, those binary oppositions are limited. First, they follow from an a posteriori argumentation: no one could have foreseen the exact outcomes of Ghana or Gambia coups. Just as well no one could have imagined that Dadis Camara, after being removed, thought to take power through ballot box, or that Amadou Toumani Touré will also be removed by a coup.
History is unpredictable and uncertain. Blaming systematically every coup is a judgment which legitimacy is questionable. A coup must be examined after at least several years.
Since the African Independences, coups has followed one another but without being similar. The Ivorian Researcher in History of International Relations Kouassi Yao, in his public lecture on “The coups in Africa: assessment and lessons to be learned”, distinguished 3 kinds of coups: the pro-democratic coup, the anti-democratic coup and the coup with subversive nature. “The first one aims at creating the conditions of the rise of democracy, the second one does not permit democracy to flourish, the third one comes out of bordering countries, multinationals or great powers”.
Then, are coups and democracy always compatible in Africa? They are not necessarily! Does this answer imply that we praise coups in Africa? Absolutely not! However, we wanted to set off a critical refection on the link between coups and democracy in Africa and we did.
Post scriptum : What is more dangerous for democracy in Africa between institutional coups and constitutional coups? In other words, who hurts more African people: the presidents for life or the putschists?
Translated by Mame Thiaba Diagne